Sporting horses: AWF to reassess its guidance on their care and welfare - Veterinary Practice
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Sporting horses: AWF to reassess its guidance on their care and welfare

Veterinary Practice continues its reports on the 2013 BVA congress with a review of two of the ‘contentious issues’ sessions

ELITE sporting horses experience
welfare standards that are no better
and often worse than ponies living
at the bottom end of the equine
social hierarchy, according to
veterinarian and welfarist Emma

Speaking in a debate at the BVA
congress, the York-based practitioner
and BVA
(AWF) trustee
argued that if
horses cannot
be kept and managed in conditions
that meet their welfare needs, then
there is no moral justification for the
sport to continue.

She noted that most concern about
poor welfare has focused on the plight
of semi-feral animals or those with
inexperienced owners who don’t
understand the animal’s needs or may
be unable to afford to keep them

Those situations do create
problems of malnutrition or parasitic
diseases but these are very obvious
while the suffering experienced by
high-value equine athletes may remain
unseen, she said.

Death or injuries suffered on the
racecourse do occur under the public
gaze but there are no reliable statistics on the numbers of horses affected.
Mrs Goodman-Milne claimed that
there is also a tolerance of non-fatal
injuries in the racing world which she
found unacceptable.

Culture of medication

“There is a culture that serious
lameness is something to be medicated
rather than addressing the underlying
cause,” she said.

Mrs Goodman-Milne
acknowledged that the
horse’s physical needs in
terms of nutrition,
shelter and freedom from
infectious diseases were
being met by the owners
of high-end competition
horses. But their
behavioural and
requirements were often
ignored with many
racehorses spending up
to 23 hours stabled on their own with
no opportunity for essential social

So the AWF was planning to
reassess the guidance that it has issued
on the care of competition horses and
the need to allow them opportunities
to be turned out at pasture with other
animals, she said.

She highlighted two particular
welfare concerns for sporting horses:
the use of the whip in racing and of
so-called crank nosebands to restrict
movement of the head in dressage

Excessive force by
jockeys in their use of
the whip is a major
concern to race-goers
and the general public
and the racing
authorities have
responded by
introducing rules on
the frequency and
force with which
whips are used, while
also encouraging the use of energy-
absorbing whip technologies.

Australian research using high-
speed cameras has shown that
infringements such as striking the
animal on the flank or head, and
raising the whip arm above shoulder
height, will regularly pass unnoticed in
normal television coverage, she said.

No useful purpose

Her objections to the use of force to
encourage the animal were
strengthened by the knowledge that it
serves no useful purpose. Using the
whip has been shown to have no effect
on where the horse finishes in the race
but it does make it more susceptible to
other types of injury, she said.

Whipping horses during a race is a
form of violence that would not be
tolerated in any other situation or in
any other domestic species. This was
recognised 30 years ago in Norway
where a ban has had no detrimental
effect on the quality of racing or the enjoyment of those
watching it.

“If changes have
been shown to work in
other countries then it
is even more
indefensible that it
should continue here,”
she said.

Meanwhile, crank
nosebands have
become a popular way
of controlling the
movements of horses in dressage competitions and to force
them to keep their mouths closed. The
bridle is often kept so tight that the
soft tissues are forced into close
contact with the teeth, causing
ulceration and bony proliferations.

Massive issue

“This is a massive issue, if we stopped
using them it would immediately
improve the welfare of thousands of
horses,” she said.

The importance of racing and
other equine sports to the economy is
often used as an argument for maintaining the status
. “But that
doesn’t justify the
level of suffering
imposed on
competition horses,”
she said, adding:
“Horses are stuck in
a state of limbo
between pets and
working animals. I
believe the interests of horses in the UK would be better
protected if they were reclassified as
agricultural animals.”

Jenny Hall, chief veterinary officer
for the British Horseracing Authority,
argued that the welfare of racehorses
is well protected under the current
system. She also noted that the two
technologies which concerned Mrs
Goodman-Milne were used at all levels
of equine sport and not just with elite

The advantage enjoyed by top-class
competition horses is that they are
subject to regulations introduced by
the sport’s administrators and there are
firm sanctions for any rider that fails
to comply with them, she said.

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